“I was nine-years-old when I got the talk.” Those are the words of sixteen-year-old Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) spoken as a voice-over during the opening sequence to director George Tillman Jr.’s devastating new drama, The Hate U Give.
The ‘talk’ Starr is referring to is the one her father, Maverick Carter (Russell Hornsby) gives to the family at the dinner table. It’s how to behave when the police pull you over. It’s what to say, and what not to say. As he explains, you will be pulled over. It’s going to happen. And over a time, it’s going to happen a lot. The explanation is precise, thorough, and under the circumstances of the family’s position in society, totally logical. “Know your rights,” dad concludes. “Know your worth. Understand?” As an African-American, it’s a talk that any sensible parent concerned for their children’s safety and welfare when out alone would consider mandatory. It’s a talk that most white parents rarely feel the need to give.
Inspired by the 2009 New Year’s Day fatal shooting of an unarmed twenty-two-year old African-American named Oscar Grant by a California police officer, then-college student Angie Thomas wrote a short story on the subject for her senior project. But as time passed and more police shootings of unarmed black males dominated the news, followed by protests against police brutality and issues of racism, writer Thomas expanded the story into a novel for a young adult readership. The title comes from Tupac Shakur’s rap, THUG LIFE; ‘The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everybody.’ Later, when in conversation with her best friend of early school days, Khalil (Algee Smith), Starr asks what does it mean. “What society gives us when we’re little comes back to bite them in the ass when we’re grown up,” he explains.
“My name is Starr with two R’s,” her voice-over informs during the introduction. “Don’t ask me what the extra R is for.”
True to her name, Starr is a bright, intelligent teenager living with her father and mother (Regina Hall) and two brothers in the problem neighborhood of Garden Heights. As the young girl states, the local Garden Heights high-school is a place where you either get high, drunk, pregnant or killed. Instead, her parents send their daughter across town to the predominately white Williamson private school. As a result, there are two versions of Starr. There’s the Garden Heights Starr and the Williamson Starr. The young girl modifies both her speech and her behavior depending on where she happens to be at the time, keeping her attitudes in check in case she comes across to most of her white classmates as too ‘black.’ She even has a white boyfriend, Chris (KJ Apa). “Chris is the best thing about Starr version two,” the girl informs.
However, it’s not long before Starr’s existence in those two worlds collide, and it’s all due to the fatal shooting by a police officer of her childhood friend. Khalil drives Starr home from a house party. It’s when a white police officer pulls the car over and asks for Khalil’s license and registration that the trouble begins. Star knows how to act. Her father gave her the ‘talk.’ But Khalil becomes belligerent, annoyed that a cop would bother him for no particular reason. He reaches for his hairbrush when he should have kept the palms of his hands on the roof of his vehicle. Thinking the boy was going for a weapon, the cop opens fire, repeatedly shooting Khalil.
Ordinarily, the setup so far would be enough to fill the narrative of any effective drama, but as events continue, The Hate U Give develops into something so much more. From that point, Starr’s life is irrevocably changed. She was the only witness, but both she and her mother are reluctant to go public. “Stuff like this gets on the news,” Starr narrates. “People get death threats. I just gotta be quiet.” But being quiet is a luxury the young girl can ill-afford.
Screenwriter, the late Audrey Wells who sadly passed away earlier this month, has done an outstanding job of adapting Thomas’ intelligent, 2017 multi-layered novel. With so much occurring, so many themes of racial injustices and their reasons for existing to explore, and so many conflicts for Starr to overcome until she finally finds her voice, you would not be surprised if the whole affair simply fell apart. Yet it never does. Every step of the way, every struggle Starr is forced to face, is meticulously crafted into an incredibly absorbing drama. Scene after powerful scene unfolds, keeping a complex series of events in check. It never loses its focus.
Activist April Ofrah (Issa Rae) wants Starr to go public with what she witnessed. She urges the girl to find her voice in society and speak up. Then there’s Starr’s uncle, Carlos (rap star and poet Common) who happens to be a police officer. The talk he gives to his niece about viewing the situation from the point-of-view of the police is deeply affecting. Though perhaps the most troubling and certainly the most threatening is King (Anthony Mackie) the local drug dealer. By going public, Starr may bring an unwanted spotlight to the neighborhood, including King’s hold over the community.
The film rarely makes a false, disingenuous step in its lengthy 132 minute running time, though maybe King’s story and the grip he has on the community concludes in a somewhat too-tidy fashion. But ultimately The Hate U Give is astonishing. Plus it can boast a standout performance from its central figure, Amandla Stenberg. Given that the weight of the film rides almost exclusively on this young girl’s shoulders and our attention on her never sways only makes her performance all the more remarkable.
Near the conclusion after the riots when a standoff between the neighborhood, the cops, and a youth with a gun results with Starr pointing an accusatory finger at everyone while asking, “How many of us have to die before y’all get it?” the anger in what she’s asking becomes faintly reminiscent of the speech Maria gave at the conclusion of West Side Story. But that tale of gang warfare, the hate of its members, the sideline victims, and the bigotry of the police was written in 1957. It’s sobering to realize that sixty-one years later not only do the same problems exist, but the stakes with drugs, guns, and violence are higher. But the film also gives hope in the shape of America’s youth, in people like Starr and those who will be inspired to also find their voice and speak up. To date, The Hate U Give is the film of the year.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 132 Miunutes